The Private Sector Improves Products and Services. Why Can’t Politics?

From the archive — six years ago this month:

A politician selling a policy proposal is easily compared to a business selling a product or service. Marketing is crucial — consumers have to learn about your product and then be convinced to buy it. The more people who make the purchase and become return customers the higher the profits and the greater success for the company.

How many Republican Party and conservative initiatives have been successfully sold to the public in the past few decades? I think it’s obvious that the answer is hardly any at all. Success has been sporadic, with most of it coming at the state level in areas like the advance of school choice. Unfortunately, even these victories for educational liberty have only been at the margins.

This, my friends, is what this series is about: the ongoing political marketing failure of the political right. What is worse, in my view, is that few on the political right seem to grasp why they’re failing to win enough converts and then elections. They think Americans are hearing the message. I’ve got some bad news — they’re not — because our side isn’t in the mass communications business.

My argument is that in order to overcome the large institutional advantages of the political left, Republicans and conservatives are going to have to get creative when it comes to the information war. They are going to have to experiment and innovate and realize that “guerilla marketing” will often be the order of the day. This effort is going to require the efforts of a lot of people who are currently sitting on the sidelines.

What can creativity and innovation produce? In my last column I mentioned Walter Issacson’s biography of master innovator Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple Computer. Jobs’ and Apple’s record is impressive. They created new industries and revolutionized old ones. They switched computers to a graphic interface, they pioneered sleek product designs, and they invented the iPod, the iTunes Store, the iPhone and the iPad.

Steve Jobs and his colleagues had a vision for the products they wanted to create — and then followed it up with a lot of hard work. Steve Jobs said that the reason the iPod became such a success was because “we made it for ourselves.”

So again, what’s the value of innovation? Sometimes it can produce miracles. Near the end of Issacson’s biography of Jobs is the following passage:

After Apple’s market share shrank to less than 5%, Microsoft’s approach was declared the winner in the personal computer realm.

In the longer run, however, there proved to be some advantages to Jobs’ model. Even with a small market share, Apple was able to maintain a huge profit margin while other computer makers were commoditized. In 2010, for example, Apple had just 7% of the revenue in the personal computer market, but it grabbed 35% of the operating profit.

More significantly, in the early 2000s Job’s insistence on end-to-end integration gave Apple an advantage in developing a digital hub strategy, which allowed your desktop computer to link seamlessly with a variety of portable devices.

Among those newly created devices, obviously, are the iPod, iTunes, iTunes Store, iPhone and iPad.

The strategy worked. In May 2000 Apple’s market value was one-twentieth that of Microsoft. In May 2010 Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world’s most valuable technology company, and by September 2011 it was worth 70% more than Microsoft.

In 2000 it looked like the Microsoft approach was going to remain the financial victor. But Steve Jobs kept innovating and created what in my mind is a financial turn-around miracle.

Like my last column’s comparing of the computer/political world — similar potential exists for our side if it gets its collective act together and begins to finally fight on all fronts in the information war.

“Think Different” was an early Apple Computer ad slogan. It’s time for Republicans and conservatives to think differently when it comes to the flow of political information to their fellow citizens.


Up next: the reason for the Republican Party’s seemingly perpetual surrender mode.